In this interview Grantham Scholar Hannah McCarrick explains how digital tech impacts Tanzanian farmers. And how being a mum – with young twins along for fieldwork on the farms – improved her research.
Hannah is a researcher at the Sheffield Institute for International Development and the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield. We spoke to her as she was writing up her thesis on digital tech and agriculture – and getting ready for her third child to be born. So Hannah had a lot to say about being a mum and a researcher, as well as telling us about Tanzania, farmers and digital tech.
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My work is focused on digital technology and agricultural development in Tanzania, with a wider applicability to the Global South.
Tanzania is a good place to look at this, because around 75% of the 60-70 million population work formally or informally in agriculture. And many are small scale farmers.
Overall, I found about 70 digital technology projects related to agriculture.
Examples include services and apps that provide market prices or that aim to help farmers make ‘better’ decisions.
A lot of these apps aren’t harmonised with each other. And many of them don’t reflect farmers’ wants and needs. Often they have a built in assumption that the goal is to make everyone into a high producing farmer.
But from the farmer’s perspective other things are more important, such as sustainability and how farming fits in with other aspects of their lives.
Another issue is that many farmers don’t know about these digital services. I engaged with about 400 farmers. All in all, not more than 20 were even aware of any of these tech services.
I conducted fieldwork in 2 locations. One was isolated, far from infrastructure, and scored highly on various measures of marginalisation.
For instance, it is up in the mountains and in rainy seasons you could not get there by bike or car. So women would walk every day up and down the mountain to get water. As such we assumed digital technology would be less accessible.
However, our second site is near a big urban area, and so closer to the market and has better connectivity.
I found out I was pregnant for the first time – with twins – just when I was supposed to start fieldwork. Because they were twins, I had a rough time. As a result, I had to push fieldwork forward.
And then Covid hit.
So when I finally went into the field to do this fieldwork my kids were about 18 months old and they came with me. At first I was nervous about it. We have connections in Tanzania where our home is [Hannah lived in Tanzania for several years prior to fieldwork], but we were going to completely different parts of the country.
I learned so much about Tanzanian culture, even though I spent a lot of time there before that. Most of the valuable insights came through discussions with the women I worked with, who were also mothers.
Being a mum allowed me to be accommodated in a different way than if I’d come without them. We fed our kids together, and my kids participated in local activities. People shared stories that you don’t get asking questions in a standardised fashion. It also helped that my children are half Tanzanian and speak Swahili, as do I.
My privileged background in Sweden, like living with water and electricity. You see what is required to be a mother in a context without those things. For me, it showed me I don’t know how to care for my kids without those services I’m used to.
On the other hand, Sweden is more individualistic about parenting. So we’ve had a bit of a culture shock coming back to Sweden. It’s ingrained in the language and the culture in Tanzania, family is centred.
For instance, how we name relatives in Tanzania. If you’re my older sister then my kids would call you ‘mama mkubwa’ (‘big mother’), or ‘mama mdogo’ (‘little mother’) for younger sisters. And because I’m married to a Tanzanian man, it makes me the ‘shemegi‘ (sister-in-law) of all Tanzanian men.
There is no option where you win, so you just have to make your own decision. For me, having kids and doing a PhD were things I didn’t want to compromise on.
I can’t lie, it has been difficult, but also rewarding. Both in terms of work/life balance and the data I collected. Within academia, it’s easy to do long hours, and get isolated in your topic. But the kids gave me a final set of boundaries. So I feel more balanced, which is ironic as I have less sleep and less time for myself!
But there’s the other side of it. Like if your kids are sick and you can’t work when you need to. I put so much pressure on myself, as so many women do, always another paper to read, or review one more time.
We would go to a farmer’s house and spend the morning there.
My sister-in-law came with me, and she would stay with the kids while me and my research assistant went to do interviews.
When we came back we would all cook (we gave money for food). Then we and the farmers would look after the kids together.
One of the hardest parts of fieldwork was communicating that I came into the community as a learner. That the farmers had knowledge I wanted to learn.
Because of a long history of colonialism and 60 odd years of heavy development work in Tanzania, people assume things when a white person comes into their community. For example, that they’re going to hand out something or start a project.
As a result, a one off interview with someone was often difficult to do in a good way, which is why I met with each interviewee at least three times. Because that first interaction had to be about communicating who I was and setting expectations straight, to flip the narrative.
I tried to do that by speaking Swahili and by being clear about what I was going to do in the communities. And by active participation in farmers’ daily lives. It is different to do something yourself – in the field, in 40 degree heat, with no water – than to hear about it.
Secondly, when you spend time with someone, if you’re nice to each other, then they learn to trust you. And then different narratives come out. Things that aren’t just what they think you want to hear.
However, there were still misunderstandings. Even with people I met 10 times. If you’re struggling to meet your livelihood needs then you’re going to take every chance you can to support yourself. Colonialism and development have created these conditions of positionality in Tanzania. And that was tricky to handle, you can’t escape your positionality.
Both men and women farm, but women are more burdened with different work responsibilities.
Firstly, women are the primary workers in the field, doing the non-profitable, hard work on the ground. Then when it comes to selling and controlling the money, the men step in.
Women also take more emotional and domestic responsibility – as is generally true.
And they are busy the whole time, also looking after their children. They typically get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and go to bed at about 9. There’s no electricity so evenings are short.
In Tanzania, people often leave their children with their mother, because they have to work. So a lot of women raise kids until they’re very old. Some grandmothers have 10 children they’re looking after, as the only adult in the household. Whilst also doing farming and probably entrepreneurial work on the side.
Yes, that’s what I hope to contribute to the field, to centre the farmers. Especially their experiences of being on the receiving end of all these ‘digital solutions’.
I wanted their views on how tech can be better.
I found that they want alternative digital solutions: alternatives to the productivity focused narratives you often see in agricultural development. And these must have more local knowledge perspectives.
Because farmers are already doing amazing things and that should be acknowledged, especially their context specific knowledge.
A lot of interests are financial.
There’s this huge push to implement digital technologies, especially from the private sector. Marginalised people are promoted as an ‘untapped business opportunity’ for investors. As a result, you have a lot of new actors, especially mobile phone operators and IT companies.
Some services for farmers are mining the data of farmers for profit. So they may provide a free service for farmers, but it’s not clearly communicated that they sell that data on. For example, if it’s a service where farmers report pests and diseases, then that’s a valuable data source to producers of pesticides.
Although a huge part of Tanzania’s population are small scale farmers, there is a different type of Tanzania going on as well. In urban areas there is a vibrant start-up scene with innovation hubs and hackathons to solve local problems.
Hopefully Tanzania will have more ownership over where technology goes in the future.
However, the flip side is that a lot of these digital services – which are not only for farmers but for health or education – say they involve Tanzanians. But which Tanzanians? An urban Tanzanian won’t know about the lives of farmers just because they are Tanzanian too.
‘Involvement’ in the tech sector is often performative on several levels.
Not always. For instance the Tanzanian government does nationwide services with free SMS for farmers to give advice and support.
But again this comes back to the framing – what support do farmers actually need?
Often farmers are framed as ‘not having enough information to make the right agricultural decisions for economic growth for Tanzania’.
Even if we would agree with this sentiment, it is not a given that if farmers get information that they can act on it.
Farmers often live under multiple layers of marginalisation. For instance, if a farmer is told via SMS to buy X to solve a problem with their tomato plant. Many farmers don’t have transport to get to a shop. Or they may not have resources to find out which shop sells X. And they may not have economic resources to buy X.
One aspect of my work is the ideologies and narratives being pushed through these digital technologies.
Many digital technologies align with the commercially driven use of agriculture and agricultural futures. Few digital solutions look at small scale, sustainable, locally owned solutions as the way forward for the agricultural sector. Instead, it’s a push to use more industrial inputs and increase yields with little care for sustainability.
That’s an influence I hope to have on the digital sector. Because farmers often feel they don’t have any choice other than to engage with industrialisation, pesticides and fertilisers.
On top of that, many farmers farm extensively on one plot. As a result, the soil gets tired, and they get less yield. It’s a complex situation.
But these implementers of digital technologies bring out one small aspect, addressing it with a digital application and call it a quick fix.
Every farmer I spoke to said mobile phones were one of the most important things in their lives, because they enable communication.
But farmers don’t use them in the way people may imagine.
For instance, many farmers have basic mobile phones. Phones so old that you can’t see the numbers, with a broken screen, or the back tied on with string. Electricity isn’t always available, so they often have to pay to charge it. As such, they only have it on for bits of the day. So access is limited for various reasons.
At the local level, the culture in the villages I worked in were centred around sharing and community.
So, if you have no credit or battery, then you go use your neighbour’s phone. Some farmers have a SIM card but no device and they check messages on a friend’s phone. That’s what access looks like for some farmers.
However, many digital technologies show that their designers have no idea how phones are used, especially for the more marginalised. For instance, a lot of these tech services are smartphone applications. But few farmers had smartphones where I worked. Though use of them is increasing, it’s still a small proportion, especially in rural areas.
Interestingly, when you speak to farmers who have a smartphone, their perception about sharing has changed.
They perceive smartphones to be personal in a way that basic mobile phones aren’t. You know yourself, you don’t want people to look through your phone.
But it is telling how the introduction of a smart device can change the way people interact with each other. Just the fact a smartphone is there makes people behave differently.
I hope that my research contributes to how digital tech can support farmers. I especially want to put farmers at the centre.
Firstly, because farmers are not just farmers, they have other needs and interests.
Secondly, because farmers are especially knowledgeable. They are not passive recipients of information that tech designers have decided farmers need to reach a certain stage of development.
I’m not claiming that my work is perfect, there’s probably a million ways it could have been done better. But to try to make sure my analysis is locally relevant I went back to share what (I thought) I had found.
I held around 5 different verification workshops in each community. I said what I had got out of it. And I asked them to please tell me what I’ve got wrong or missed. That was super useful: people laughing at me telling me I completely misunderstood this or ‘yeah Hannah you actually got this right’.
As an academic I feel more confident now that I have farmers saying ‘yes I agree with this analysis’. I don’t want to be someone who says this is their story and then it’s not. Even though I’ve lived in Tanzania for a long time, it’s not my story.
Interview by Claire Moran. All images are by Hannah McCarrick.
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